Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

The Chronicle of Philanthropy last month published my opinion piece on climate philanthropy. They’ve kindly agreed to let me repost it here.

America’s foundations have poured billions of dollars into the fight against climate change. What do they have to show for their money?

Big environmental grant makers — Hewlett, MacArthur, Moore, Packard, and the rest — can point to a few meaningful victories.

The Energy Foundation laid the groundwork for renewable-energy policies that 29 states have adopted. The ClimateWorks Foundation coordinated work to help developing countries replace polluting refrigerants with efficient, climate-friendly cooling. Bloomberg Philanthropies financed the Sierra Club’s campaign to shut down coal-fired power plants. Foundations have backed educational efforts, ranging from Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth to the Climate Central website, which helped persuade Americans that humans have contributed to climate change and that the government should do more to promote clean energy and take other steps to protect the planet.

But when it comes to U.S. climate policy, grant makers and the environmental nonprofits they support have been stymied. President Trump has pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord. His EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, is dismantling the agency’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases. The Republicans who control Congress are hostile to climate action.

Globally, the picture is nearly as grim. In the past two decades, annual emissions of greenhouse gases have grown from the equivalent of 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year to nearly 50 billion, and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are rising relentlessly.

If philanthropy is to be judged by its outcomes — and how else should it be judged? — climate philanthropy has failed. The U.S. government is further from acting to curb climate change than it was a decade ago. Without action by the United States, which is an indispensable player on the global stage, it will be all but impossible for the planet to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Robert Brulle, a sociology professor at Drexel University, says: “The big funders have learned way too little from the success of the conservative movement. They’ve spent millions and millions of dollars, and the climate movement, such as it is, continues to fail.”

No Public Accountability

Importantly, no one has been held accountable for the failure of climate philanthropy, at least not publicly.

Few grant makers have published an assessment of their climate work or a list of lessons learned. The only exceptions, as best as I can tell, are research by the Rockefeller Family Fund into the climate movement and an independent report on the ClimateWorks Foundation, which only surfaced when WikiLeaks hacked the email account of John Podesta, who is on the foundation’s board.

The report’s conclusions were mixed. (“There were successes and setbacks. Together they suggest an effort that was both “brilliant” and “an epic failure.”) To this day, it’s not available on the ClimateWorks website.

Much has been written about how the fossil-fuel industry, conservative think tanks, and the Koch brothers have opposed efforts to deal with global warming. Far less attention has been paid to the foundations that have powered the climate movement. Foundations help set the movement’s strategy and decide which nonprofits to support.

“Foundations and philanthropists play an incredible agenda-setting and framing role behind the scenes,” says Matthew Nisbet, a Northeastern University professor who has written extensively about how money has affected the climate fight. “Many of these large funders see themselves not just as grant makers but as strategists.”

That said, it’s no simple matter to evaluate philanthropy’s impact on the climate battle. Supporters of climate action have battled powerful headwinds — the monied interests on the other side, Republicans’ refusal to work with President Obama, and the unpredictable rise of President Trump.

Making matters worse for advocates of climate action is the fact they are trying to address a problem that is almost uniquely ill-suited for a political system with a short-term focus: Most climate solutions impose immediate costs on Americans in the form of higher energy prices or taxes in exchange for benefits that are long term, global, and harder to quantify. Whether smarter climate philanthropy or a better-funded environmental movement could have turned the tide is impossible to know.

Here’s one thing we do know, though: Foundations and the environmental nonprofits they support have failed to build a robust, broad-based political movement for climate action, even though their critics have urged them to do so for years. While public opinion has shifted, those sentiments have not translated into votes.

“Public support for accelerating the transition to clean energy is strong, as is public support for acting to curb climate change,” says Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. “What is missing are the constituents who feel so strongly about this issue that they have created a potent political force.”

The big environmental nonprofits that capture the most funding have focused on elites, Mr. Nisbet says. “Their theory of social change was far too much inside the Beltway,” he says. “They hadn’t paid enough attention to grass-roots pressure.”

Justin Guay, a climate program officer at the Packard Foundation, agrees, saying: “We were too technocratic, too top down, and, quite frankly, politically naïve. … Change in the U.S. comes from the bottom up. It doesn’t come from the top down.”

Foundations and nonprofits have absorbed that lesson. They now appear to be devoting more resources to movement building. The trouble is, they don’t agree on what the climate movement should look like.

Some grant makers want to strengthen grass-roots groups that link the issue of climate change to economic justice, inequality, and racism; they want to steamroll President Trump and the Republicans at the ballot box. “We need regime change,” says Tom Steyer, a billionaire investor, philanthropist, and climate activist. Climate action, he says, will be driven “by the success at an electoral level of a progressive coalition. I don’t think there’s any other way.”

By contrast, other donors want to depoliticize the issue. No major U.S. environmental law has been passed without bipartisan support, notes Jonathan Pershing, who oversees environmental grants at the Hewlett Foundation.

“We can’t just work with the guys on the left,” Mr. Pershing says. “We have to work with the guys in the center and the guys on the right.”

It’s hard to see how those two strategies can be reconciled. To the contrary, they would appear to be working at cross purposes.

To understand the situation better, I interviewed more than a dozen philanthropists, academics, and activists and reviewed studies of climate philanthropy. It’s impossible to know precisely how much money has been spent to fight climate change, but it is probably $600 million to $1.2 billion a year.

Failure to Build Popular Support

The two biggest financiers have been the ClimateWorks Foundation and the Energy Foundation, which have taken in $1.3 billion and $940 million, respectively, since 2008 from big foundations that wanted experts to decide where the money would do the most good. It’s important to note that only a portion of their funding has been spent to influence American policy; much has been spent overseas.

Still, federal climate policy has always been a top priority for foundations and green groups. In the late 2000s, they lined up behind a well-funded, tightly managed campaign to support legislation, known as cap-and-trade, that would impose an economywide limit on U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. The House passed a business-friendly bill in 2009, but the Senate never took up the measure, to the dismay of environmentalists.

The failure of cap-and-trade led to a flurry of efforts to explain what had gone wrong. Many factors came into play, but academic experts faulted the foundations and environmentalists for failing to build popular support for climate action.

In a much-discussed 2013 post-mortem on the failure of cap-and-trade, Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist, wrote:

Climate-change warriors will have to look beyond elite maneuvers and find ways to address the values and interests of tens of millions of U.S. citizens. To counter fierce political opposition, reformers will have to build organizational networks across the country, and they will need to orchestrate sustained political efforts that stretch far beyond friendly congressional offices, comfy board rooms, and posh retreats.

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, in a report called Cultivating the Grassroots, agreed, saying: “We can secure more environmental wins by decreasing reliance on top-down funding strategies and increasing funding for grassroots communities.”

Yet another study, by journalists Petra Bartosiewicz and Marissa Miley, found that “very little of the money invested in the climate campaign went to grassroots organizations.”

Lee Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Family Fund — which, to its credit, funded efforts to understand what happened and published the results — says the environmental movement became a victim of its own success.

Mr. Wasserman says green groups like the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council grew up when there was bipartisan support for clean air and clean water. Staffed by scientists, lawyers, economists, and policy experts, they made progress by devising policy solutions and working inside the Beltway.

“They are right-brained organizations doing worthwhile analysis, very thoughtful, coming up with policies that make a good deal of sense,” Mr. Wasserman says. But they never built a political movement.

Mr. Brulle of Drexel says environmentalists must learn how to speak from the heart as well as the head. “We used to have Barry Commoner. He had a reverence for the natural world. Now we have Fred Krupp. He talks about energy efficiency,” Mr. Brulle says. (Mr. Krupp is the longtime president of the Environmental Defense Fund.)

While foundations can’t support candidates or political campaigns, their critics say they have underinvested in grass-roots organizations. There’s no green counterweight to the Tea Party.

A political fight

As a philanthropist, Mr. Steyer continues to support energy research at Stanford and Yale. But he has shifted much of his giving to the political arena. “My original assumption — that this would be a technical problem and that it would be solved across party lines — turned out to be a nice thing to think but turned out not to be true,” Mr. Steyer says. “This is a political fight.”

Major climate grant makers say the threat of global warming needs more money and attention from foundations. Hewlett Foundation president Larry Kramer and Packard Foundation president Carol Larson have repeatedly called for more funding. And in December Hewlett announced it would provide $600 million over the next decade to reduce carbon emissions that lead to global warming.

“Funders must recognize that global warming threatens everything they care about, and that’s true no matter what they care about,” Mr. Kramer wrote last spring.

With little hope of enacting climate policy in Washington, some grant makers support city and state efforts to promote renewable energy and efficiency. Others seek to sway corporate leaders and investors. Still others devote resources to building a climate movement. Foundations are taking “a much more mosaiclike approach, as opposed to a singular focus,” than they did on cap-and-trade, says Hewlett’s Mr. Pershing.

The trouble is, even as foundations invest in building political support for climate change, they are pulling in opposite directions.

Progressive foundations want to empower liberal activists. Aaron Dorfman, chief executive of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, says: “If we’re going to win on policy, we’ve got to change strategy, we’ve got to build a movement, we’ve got to fund the grass-roots.”

Grantees of the Rockefeller Family Fund include a Latino climate network, nonprofits that oppose a coal-export terminal in Washington State, and groups working against oil and gas pipelines in Appalachia. The Chorus Foundation has made 10-year commitments to organizations seeking what’s known as a “just transition” from fossil fuels to clean energy in Alaska, eastern Kentucky, Buffalo, N.Y., and Oakland, Calif. The Schmidt Family Foundation backed nonprofits that led the fight to ban fracking in New York State, and the Democracy Alliance, a network of progressive donors, has a climate fund to link climate action with economic justice.

“We’re focused on building power with low-income communities, communities of color, and impacted communities,” says Roger Kim of the Democracy Alliance.

Unlike most foundations, Chorus and the Democracy Alliance also do political work through 501(c)(4) affiliates, to which donations are not tax-exempt.

Other foundations, meantime, are investing in think tanks and nonprofits that target conservatives and libertarians. MacArthur supports state-level outreach to Republicans by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy. Hewlett has made grants to the Niskanen Center and the R Street Institute, free-market think tanks that want to tax greenhouse-gas emissions. Hewlett, Packard, and others support the Clean Air Task Force, a leading advocate for so-called clean coal technologies.

Not surprisingly, the liberal and conservative climate groups don’t see eye to eye. Left-leaning activists generally oppose nuclear energy, fracking for natural gas, efforts to develop clean coal plants, and the Keystone and Dakota pipelines. Those positions put off Republicans.

“The Keystone fight, the anti-fracking stuff, plus the Dakota access battle polarized the debate, and in some ways they were intended to polarize the debate,” says Ted Nordhaus, executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, which supports a full array of low-carbon options, including nuclear energy. “That’s a recipe for failure.”

Winning Over the Left and the Right

Still, there are rays of hope for grant makers seeking to curb climate change.

One of the few nonprofits that has been winning converts across the political spectrum is the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a nonpartisan group that assiduously cultivates relationships with both Democrats and Republicans. It supports a revenue-neutral carbon tax with all of the net revenue returned directly to households, an approach that Mark Reynolds, its executive director, describes as “entirely libertarian and entirely progressive.”

Formed 10 years ago, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby has chapters in every congressional district and held nearly 1,400 meetings with members of Congress last year. It approaches elected officials with “admiration, respect, and gratitude for their public service,” says Mark Reynolds, its executive director. It drove creation of the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group in the House made up of 31 Republican and 31 Democratic members.

Foundations have noticed. Two years ago, the MacArthur Foundation and the Laura and John Arnold Foundation began supporting Citizens’ Climate Education, the tax-exempt affiliate of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Says Mr. Reynolds: “We are seeing a lot more enthusiasm from foundations. They understand we need votes on both sides of the aisle.” Better late than never, but when it comes to climate, timing is crucial — if global emissions don’t start to decline soon, and then decline further and faster, scientists say there’s little chance that the world will be able to meet the temperature goals set two years ago in Paris.

NOTE: Several foundations and nonprofits responded to my story with letters to The Chronicle. See Letters: Defeatism about Philanthropy’s Role in Curbing Climate Change Unwarranted. These are likely behind a paywall and so I would encourage critics to post them here in the comments.

If being a defeatist means that I believe that the world will fail to keep global temperatures from rising above 2 degrees C–the modest target set in Paris–I plead guilty. The truth is, global and U.S. emissions are rising again; they need to fall sharply.

As David Roberts wrote last fall in Vox: “Collectively, the carbon reductions pledged by the world’s countries in Paris are woefully inadequate. Even assuming all countries fulfill their pledges, it would account for only about a third of the needed emission reductions to get to 2 degrees.” And countries are not fulfilling those pledges, as Brady Dennis and Christ Mooney reported last month in The Washington Post: “The world is off target…..Even as renewable energy grows cheaper and automakers churn out battery-powered and more efficient cars, many nations around the world are nonetheless struggling to hit the relatively modest goals set in Paris.”

This is not the fault of philanthropists. But foundations and the nonprofits they support should acknowledge their mistakes, talk publicly about what they’ve learned, revise their strategy accordingly and pour a lot more money into the fight.

9 thoughts on “The failure of climate philanthropy

  1. Michael Mielke says:


    Philanthropy is failing on Climate, and failing generally.

    We are past able to stop the warming or ecological breakdown past reasonable limits unless philanthropy jump-shifts into a different and comprehensive approach to our collective political and social failures to date.

    See the very recent < 1,000 word article on MAHB, linked here:

    Perhaps see the four minute film linked or the expanded e-book available to detail what approach might work for philanthropy, in these crises.



  2. At the Paleontological Research Institution we believe in grassroots empowerment through climate education. The best way to educate is to reach teachers, whose classrooms provide a powerful multiplier for the climate change message. PRI has embarked on a year-long effort to send our Teacher-Friendly Guide ™ to Climate Change (the tenth book in the Teacher-Friendly Guide series) to every public high school science teacher in the country. As noted in this post, addressing climate change requires philanthropic support which, at the grassroots level, is hard to come by. We have an enthusiastic cohort of crowdsource donors whose support will allow us to reach 25% of our goal. And we have drawn the ire of the Heartland Institute who has already distributed climate-denial propaganda to 300,000 teachers ( But attracting the support of foundations remains elusive. Nevertheless we persist. More information about this effort can be found here:

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Louis Tenenbaum says:

    Great article on a significant topic Marc. Early in my organizing and marching in the no nukes movement we looked for union involvement. One of our best rally speakers was a guy from the IWW, the “wobblies”. We sang, “Which side are you on? I”ll stick with the union ” when we marched. We knew it would be good for the environment, for workers and families and for JOBS but there was very little mix between the environmentalists and the workers. Detroit unions were still strong..this was just before the gas crises that hurt Detroit manufacturers so badly.

    Reading your piece makes me think the Kochs and others who oppose the health and family and environmental benefits and JOBS created by the low carbon energy industries have not just been better at their messages but probably used false arguments in their campaigns. Think back to Harry and Louise. This was one of the most successful “Wag the Dog” type misinformation campaigns that I now see as just one brick in a continuous wall of obfuscation to separate progressive and liberal issues from what should be a natural base of moderate income Americans. These people are the face of reduced income equality over recent decades.

    And, of course, how can we now not also see this in the same light as the current political climate; not just Russian intervention but also the likes of the Kochs’ misinformation machines, and 45’s populist calls while he fortifies the swamp?

    My new hope is that our ubiquitously environmentally educated next generation will engage. Can we dream that our high school, college, millennial grassroots gun control leaders take up this aspect of THEIR future safety next? As your article shows, we have certainly made a hash of it so far.

    Liked by 1 person

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